One of 2019’s most exciting audiobooks was a new recording of the 1953 Newbery Honor book Charlotte’s Web, read by an ensemble cast that included Meryl Streep and with a new cover by E.B. White biographer and mixed-media artist Melissa Sweet. It’s the first new audiobook of the beloved classic since White’s own recording in 1970.
Some pig? Some audiobook! We wanted to hear more about this astounding audio production and reached out to its producer, Kelly Gildea, who has also worked on award-winners like Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (another ensemble audiobook) and Roller Girl by Victoria Jamieson (a graphic novel adaptation). Gildea shares a look into the world of audiobook production and chats about working with Streep and hearing voices when she reads.
In the most basic terms, for audio fans who may not know, what does an audiobook producer do?
Well, to put it very basically: We read the book, cast the book and carry it through the recording and post-production processes. At Penguin Random House, we divvy up our title list among the producers. Each individual producer is working on many titles at once, in different stages of production. It starts with reading the manuscript and thinking about what the text is asking for: what type of narrator, how many narrators, etc. Then we consult with the author to check that our visions line up for the program. Once we have a plan in place, we schedule our recording with the selected narrator(s) and, in most cases, a director. Sometimes, our producers also direct the recording sessions, as I did with Charlotte’s Web.
All along the way, we are in continuous contact with the author, consulting on pronunciations, text queries and any other questions that come up. Once the recording has wrapped, our post-production team takes it through edit and QC, after which we are weighing in again on any notes that come back. It’s a lengthy, exciting process and there’s a great sense of accomplishment for the whole team when a project has wrapped.
Describe the production process for us. How long does it take? What’s a day in the studio like?
An average book might take about four days to record. But it truly depends on the book’s length, density and difficulty. Charlotte’s Web, though short, took a very long time to produce, because there were so many moving parts: booking the many sessions, recording all of the actors individually and working closely with the audio editor once all the pieces were assembled.
A typical day in the studio would be about four or five hours of actual reading, with a few breaks and a lunch. For Charlotte’s Web, I spent a day and a half in the studio with Meryl Streep and several hours with each of the main characters. A lot of the additional featured characters had very brief recording sessions, an hour or so.
“Charlotte’s Web is such a cherished and stunning piece of literature, so that makes it both thrilling and terrifying to adapt to audio.”
How do you decide whether a book will be a full-cast production (like Charlotte’s Web and Lincoln in the Bardo) versus a single-narrator production? How involved are you in the casting?
Most times, the format of the book dictates how we approach it. For something like Lincoln in the Bardo, which was constructed almost like a play, it seemed only natural to use many voices, and author George Saunders was fully on board for that. For Charlotte’s Web, both the Estate of E.B. White and Listening Library had decided to release a full-cast production before I was assigned to produce and direct. Our producers decide the casting of each program, with input from our authors.
Tell us a bit about transforming a beloved classic like Charlotte’s Web into a new audiobook. What is difficult about a classic? What was easy?
Charlotte’s Web is such a cherished and stunning piece of literature, so that makes it both thrilling and terrifying to adapt to audio. When Meryl Streep accepted our offer to narrate, I decided to hold off on casting the remainder of the book until she had done so. Her reading was so warm and captivating, and I knew I had to round out the cast with actors who could give performances that would fit with the tone Meryl had created. Everyone recorded separately, so we really didn’t know (until all the sessions were edited together) exactly what we had on our hands, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried that it would not marry together well. Thankfully, I got to work with Ted Scott and Heather Scott, a post-production team who also worked with me on Lincoln in the Bardo (and many others), and their work was exceptional. It is such a beautiful, cohesive piece, and it could not have been achieved without this stellar cast and crew.
On a similar note, are there any special considerations when creating an audiobook for a children’s book versus a book for adults?
That’s a good question. In this case, I wanted to create something that would be enjoyable for everyone, a true family program. E.B. White’s tone is never condescending. He spoke to children as he’d speak to anyone, with immense respect and trust. It’s there in the text, and I think it’s evident in the performances. For young children’s books, we work very hard to make sure our programs are word perfect, to honor the author’s work, while also taking into consideration the fact that some kids might be following along with a piece of text.
Does your work impact how you read? When you read, do you always find yourself thinking, “Oh, so-and-so would be such a great narrator for this?”
Yes! It’s funny, because rarely can I read something these days without thinking about narrators and pronunciations. Pretty soon after starting a book, someone’s voice will likely pop into my head. I guess I’m now hardwired to think about the audio approach to everything.
Do you listen to audiobooks for fun, or is that too much like work?
I do listen to audiobooks on my commute to work. It’s really the only way I can read books that I’m not working on. And my son, Miles (who’s 9), and I will often listen to children’s books when we’re in the car together. We listened to Charlotte’s Web once it was finished, and I was constantly looking in the rearview mirror to gauge his reactions! (Fun fact: Miles and several of his friends are the voices of the goslings and the baby spiders in the program! That made listening, for them, extra special.)
What’s the weirdest thing about your job, or something that audiobook listeners might not expect?
One of the weirdest (and coolest) things about the audiobook industry is that it’s a relatively tight-knit community and seems to remain so even as it grows. Even for those who work in isolation, when we all come together for conferences or awards shows, the energy is extremely positive and supportive. This is a community of people who love books, so there is deep appreciation for each other.
What do audiobooks offer that a book can’t? In the case of Charlotte’s Web, what do you think the production offered?
For me, audiobooks offer a way to take in books that I otherwise would not have the time or capability to read. Though some people might reject audiobooks based on the idea that, in many ways, it is someone else’s interpretation of the text. But I can assure you that the producers, directors and narrators take this responsibility very seriously and do all that they can to honor the text and present it in the most authentic way possible. I think that E.B. White’s recording of Charlotte’s Web is beautiful. Our new production just opens another door into that world, where every single voice is realized by a person who fully committed to their character.
Audiobooks are booming! Digital audio is the fastest growing segment of the publishing industry. Why do you think this is? What do you see as the future of audio?
Audio is so readily accessible. If you want a book, you can download it and start listening immediately. For many works of nonfiction, it has been incredible to hear the words in the author’s own voice. And fiction can be completely elevated by an exceptional performance. I think the format offers so many possibilities, and I think we’re just going to see more exciting things from this industry in the future.